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The Lower Ninth Ward

The Lower Ninth Ward has long been a cultural touchstone for New Orleans, generating some of the most venerable artists and colorful traditions in the city. In the wake of post-Katrina flooding, the neighborhood became a touchstone for the whole nation, and indeed the world, as a symbol of tragedy. No neighborhood endured as much destruction or suffering as this low-lying residential stretch that fell victim to the failed levees.

Nowadays, the neighborhood is a very changed place. Signs of the deluge persist—empty lots where houses were literally swept off their foundations, boarded-up buildings with overgrown weeds and an eerie quiet—but signs of life and renewed vigor show, too. A slow but steady rebuilding effort by hard-hit locals joined by aid organizations and volunteers is reclaiming the landscape one lot at a time. Traditional New Orleans shotgun-style homes are now joined by sleek, raised, modern houses, compliments of the Brad Pitt–led efforts of Project Pink and the Make it Right Foundation. In addition, groups like Habitat for Humanity and Global Green have embarked on innovative and environmentally sustainable rebuilding projects in and around this neighborhood, such as the New Orleans Musicians Village and the Holy Cross Project.

One of the most fascinating and heart-warming locations in the neighborhood, however, has to be the House of Dance and Feathers (1317 Tupelo St. 504/957-2678). This tiny backyard museum is a labor of love for community character Ronald Lewis, a retired streetcar conductor. Formed almost by accident (after his wife threw his extensive collection of Mardi Gras Indian and second-line paraphernalia out of the house and into the yard), this small glass-paneled building is a treasure trove of Mardi Gras Indian lore and local legend. Intricately beaded panels from Indian costumes, huge fans and plumes of feathers dangling from the rafters, and photographs cover almost every available inch of wall space.

Lewis, who, among many other things, can list "president of the Big Nine Social and Pleasure Club" and "former Council Chief of the Choctaw Hunters" on his résumé, is a qualified and dedicated historian whose vision and work have become a rallying point for a hardscrabble neighborhood.

The Lower Ninth Ward is not the safest area of New Orleans, and we advise you to visit during the day in a car or with a tour. One safe and informative way to learn about Hurricane Katrina's effect on the city, including the Lower Ninth Ward, is to sign up for a bus tour offered by Grayline Tours (504/569-1401 or 800/535-7786). For those visitors interested in contributing to the ongoing recovery of the neighborhood and city, the Louisiana Serve Commission's website (www.volunteerlouisiana.gov) has a section about opportunities to volunteer while on vacation called "Voluntourism" that can link you up with numerous opportunities.

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